Sins of the father…

In many ways, we seem to be entering the era of cleaning up after our predecessors. I think there’s a degree to which every generation has to cope with the mistakes of their forebearers, but I believe the youth of today, and of generations to come, will face unique challenges in that arena. There’s climate change, of course. Our climate is headed to a hotter planetary temperature than our species has ever encountered. This could have been avoided, but it wasn’t, and now those of us alive today, and those still to come, will have to figure out how to deal with it. But that’s not all we’ll have to deal with

Climate Progress recently published an article about the start of a pollution cleanup effort in Nigeria. In the U.S., we tend to hear about things like oil spills when they’re big, sensational events, and usually only when they happen on our shores. In some ways, Nigeria has had one long oil spill around the Niger Delta that has never really been cleaned up, and it hasn’t gotten much attention in the media.

The Climate Progress article says that the cleanup and ecosystem restoration effort is expected to take “up to 25 years”, but I have to say that seems optimistic to me. They’re focusing on one part of the Niger delta, and it’s not as if the oil industry has just left Nigeria, or even the delta region. Even when they do leave, and all the wells are capped, and no new ones are being drilled, what then? It seems unlikely that an industry that has been so willing to risk environmental and human devastation for a bit more profit will suddenly have a change of heart and do a proper job cleaning up after themselves. That brings us to my concern for the future.

An abandoned oil well is not empty, and there’s no guarantee that whatever has been used to seal such a well won’t break down in the future. There are 27,000 such wells in the Gulf of Mexico alone, not counting active wells (the Deepwater Horizon well was about to be categorized as “temporarily abandoned” and was being sealed when it blew). I don’t know how many active and inactive wells there are Nigeria, or other locations around the world, but it seems unlikely that as the climate changes, the ocean becomes more acidic, and the oil industry begins to fade, the abandoned extraction sites will just stay solid and safe. I could be mistaken, of course, but my guess is that we’ll see oil spills and oil leaks long after we stop using oil to run our society.

And that’s just the oil wells. Three years ago, NOAA published a risk assessment warning about pollution from ships that sank during the 20th century. According to them, it could be worse – there are only 36 ships on our coast that they consider a serious risk – but again, that’s just in the waters off of the United States. Around the world, there are sunken ships, oil wells, coal mines, natural gas fields, and other places where the energy infrastructure that drove the 20th century will sit, long after renewable energy has become the dominate power source (probably along with some form of nuclear power). I don’t know whether we have the resources to deal with all of that while also transitioning to a new energy system and coping with a rapidly changing climate. Whether it’s in a few years, or generations down the road, humanity will have to deal with the refuse of our predecessors. I only hope it won’t be by coping with unexpected spills, leaks, and other disasters during a time when we’ve got more problems than we can handle already.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    For a fun exercise, get out your pencil and some envelope backs and work out how many generations will face the “cleanup” (read: damage endurance and attempted mitigation) for 20th-21st century nuclear power and weapons.

    Our n-great grandkids may well confront returning glaciers before the radwaste problem goes away.

  2. says

    Possibly. My one “ray of hope” on that is that there are now some nuclear power plant designs that basically use the “heat” of radioactive waste to create steam and generate power.

    It’s not a fission reaction, it’s just collecting a bunch of spent fuel rods in a heavily lined and shielded pit, and running pipes through to heat water and power turbines.

    It would be slower to generate power than a fission plant, but it would slightly accelerate the “cooling” of the spent fuel, while using it to generate power, and there would be effectively zero meltdown risk.

    If we can get something like that set up, it would help us get rid of some of the waste, while also generating low/zero-emissions energy.

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